While Harriet Beecher Stowe was writing what was destined to become her most famous novel, she was a supporter of the American Colonization Society. She believed that freeing the slaves was a good idea as long as they were sent to Africa, where they were envisioned as not only being happier than in nineteenth-century America but more useful, since they would be put into the service of converting the "heathen" progeny of their ancestors. Within the year of U.T.C.'s publication, however, Stowe had changed her mind. For a variety of reasons, colonization had proven to be completely unworkable, even on a small scale. But that wasn't the only reason why Mrs. Stowe and many others came to realize it would be wrong to press on with the scheme. They now understood that those who didn't want freed slaves living in their midst were no better than those who supported slavery.
In 1856, Stowe published Dred, whose title character is an escaped slave, modeled on Nat Turner, who takes refuge in a swamp (hence the book's subtitle, A Tale of Dismal Swamp) and inspires others to join him in his rebellion. Indeed, Turner is mentioned by one of the novel's characters, the slaveholding lawyer Mr. Jeykl. “It’s a notorious fact," he says, "that the worst insurrections have arisen from the reading of the Bible by these ignorant fellows. That was the case with Nat Turner in Virginia." (It's also the case with the fictional Dred, who read the Bible on his own, and arrived at his own interpretations, and that's exactly why he made his escape and began his insurrection by helping others who escaped.) Nonetheless, Mr. Jekyl came to believe that Christianizing enslaved people could work in his favor, as long as it was done with care. “Now, when they began religious instruction, there was a great prejudice against it in our part of the country," he recalls. "You see they were afraid that the niggers would get uppish. Ah, but you see the missionaries are pretty careful; they put it in strong in the catechisms about the rights of the master. You see the instruction is just grounded on this, that the master stands in God’s place to them.”
Having a self-described "good talent" for buying at the slave auctions, Mr. Jekyl boasts that he recently "bought a perfect jewel of a blacksmith," "an uncommonly ingenious man," who "will make, easy, his fifteen dollars a month." What is more, given his revised view of Christianizing, he believes the man "is all the more valuable, because he has been religiously brought up," having "been brought up in a district where they have a missionary, and a great deal of pains has been taken to form his religious principles.” The Christianized enslaved people "are better contented," Mr. Jekyl goes on. "They don’t run away, as they used to. Just that simple idea that their master stands in God’s place to them. Why, you see, it cuts its way.”
Stowe wrote Dred in Andover, where her husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe, an alum of the seminary, spent six years as its professor of sacred rhetoric.* Reverend Stowe's colleagues were mostly fine with the publication of U.T.C., but one has to wonder how Dred was received among them, since it blatantly attacked them not only for their general, habitual hypocrisy but specifically for their "laborious arguments" by which clergy in both the North and South were using the Old Testament to justify "the divine institution of slavery."
And what of the churchwomen of Andover? Did they see themselves in Aunt Louise Nesbit, the Dred character who praises a Mr. Titmarsh for defending slavery by means of the Bible? “He proved that slavery was a scriptural institution, and established by God,” says Aunt Nesbit. (Mr. Titmarsh: “… having pleased the Divine Providence to establish the institution of slavery, I humbly presume it is not competent for human reason to judge of it.” She also thinks highly of Mr. Jekyl. According to her, he, who serves as an elder in her church, is "a very pious man.” Did they understand that Stowe had them in mind when she wrote that “[b]y the Christian race, [Aunt Nesbit] understood going at certain stated times to religious meetings, reading the Bible and hymn-book at certain hours in the day, giving at regular intervals stipulated sums to religious charities, and preserving a general state of leaden indifference to everybody and everything in the world”? Likewise, when Aunt Nesbit's niece Nina Gordon declares she'll never be made to believe "that Aunt Nesbit has got religion"? "I know there is such a thing as religion," says Nina, "but she hasn’t got it. It isn’t all being sober, and crackling old stiff religious newspapers, and boring texts and hymns, that makes people religious.” Cracking old stiff newspapers, and boring texts and hymns -- many of which, in the real world, were printed in Andover. And Mrs. Stowe, as omniscient narrator, is forced to conclude: "1856 we are sorry to say that we can report no improvement in the action of the great ecclesiastical bodies on the subject of slavery, but rather deterioration.”
*Dred includes a description of a thunderstorm; it's in Chapter 24, “Life in the Swamps.” According to Stowe's son, it was based on a thunderstorm in Andover, during which her twin girls were frightened. They came downstairs to find their mother in her room “lying quietly in bed awake, and calmly watching the storm from the windows, the shades being up. She expressed no surprise on seeing them, but said that she had not been herself in the least frightened, though intensely interested in watching the storm. ‘I have been writing a description of a thunderstorm for my book, and I am watching to see if I need to correct it.” Charles Edward Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Compiled from Her Letters and Journals by Her Son Charles Edward Stowe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889), 267.